Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Transitional Howard: Racism and Solomon Kane, Part 3

As Wings in the Night progresses, the reader finds out that the Bognadi tribe chose a lush land to cultivate and live on, but they are soon tormented by the flying beasts they call akaana. The akaanas (harpies) eventually control and kill the Bogandi tribe leaving about 150 tribe members at the time Solomon Kane finds them. Because their numbers have dwindled due to the harpies, the Bogandi could not escape to the West because of the large numbers of cannibals. Kane pities the Bogandi people and vows to help them. It is at this point that we see the first reference of a black tribe in any of Howard's writings being referred to as human beings instead of black people:
Kane shuddered at the thought of a tribe of human beings, thus passing slowly but surely into the maws of a race of monsters. (The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, Del Rey, p. 302)
 Kane is disgusted with the thought that these harpies have caused this group of people to suffer so much. His pity is not aimed at them because they are black, but because they are people. Since Kane had already killed two harpies, the beasts stayed at bay for a period. Kane remains with the tribe and racks his mind to devise a plan to get rid of the beasts. For a time the village is at peace until the harpies launch a final attack.

In the night, Kane is awaken by a full blown assault. The harpies have descended on the helpless Bogandi tribe; a surprise attack in the night. In the midst of the turmoil, Kane attempts to help the people but is as limited as they are with weaponry. Feeling utter despair and responsibility for these people Kane goes mad. In his temporary madness he lashes out in all directions killing harpies and screaming at the top of his lungs in the process. The harpies finally leave the village in total ruins, everyone has been slaughtered except the maddened Kane. And it's here that Howard writes one of his most telling paragraphs in the story about the "white man":
And was he [Kane] not a symbol of Man, staggering among the tooth-marked bones and severed grinning heads of humans, brandishing a futile ax, and screaming incoherent hate at the grisly, winged shapes of Night that make their prey, chuckling in demonic triumph above him and dripping into his mad eyes the pitiful blood of their human victims? (p. 312)
There are several important things to note in the above paragraph. First, why does Howard refer to Kane—the only person in the scene who is white—as a symbol of Man? Why is man capitalized? It has nothing to do with masculinity. Nor does it refer to Kane's status. I think Howard is using the the phrase in connection with two features of the story: the fact that the Bogandi thought Kane was a god, and the fact that Kane is white. So race here is an issue but not racism toward blacks per se. Kane has failed this tribe, he's gone mad due to that fact. He feels responsible. Also, Howard calls the tribe, once again, humans and not blacks in the above paragraph. I think "Man" is capitalized in the above paragraph to refer to "whites,"—Kane being the white man on the scene—and has a religious referent (a god). This assessment is based on what immediately follows: the sub-title "The White-Skinned Conqueror."

This sub-title jumps off the page deliberately. Howard uses it to grab attention, but it is this sub-title that has lent to the idea that Howard is being racist when just the opposite may be a work here. Reading on, we see Kane surveying the death and destruction at the claws of the harpies. Kane observes the dead Bogandi people, especially those whom he has come to admire (e.g. Goru). Then this happens:
Kane looked at the shambles that had been Boganda, and he looked at the death mask of Goru. And he lifted his clenched fists above his head, and with glaring eyes raised and writhing lips flecked with froth, he cursed the sky and the earth and the spheres above and below. He cursed the cold stars, the blazing sun, the mocking moon and the whisper of the wind. He cursed all fates and destinies, all that he had loved or hated, the silent cities beneath the seas, the past ages and the future eons. In one soul-shaking burst of blasphemy he cursed the gods and devils who make mankind their sport, and he cursed Man who lives blindly on and blindly offers his back to the iron-hoofed feet of his gods. (p. 313-15)
Suddenly we read what might appear as a maddened tirade. However, this tirade speaks volumes not only about the content of this story but about the content of the human condition and current affairs during Howard's day and the century that lead up to Howard's day. Once again we see Howard capitalize the word "Man." He does so in the same context as the last passage—referring to "whites." This time Man is followed by a most telling passage: "who lives blindly on and blindly offers his back to the iron-hoofed feet of his gods." 

What does Howard mean with his use of "iron-hoofed feet"? Is this a reference to slavery? To hatred? To racism? The answer seems to be, "yes", to all the above. And, as Howard has declared, "Man . . . blindly offers his back" to these things. Moreover, the harpies in this story certainly represent those who have oppressed and destroyed certain people, namely the oppression of blacks. Howard is brilliant in his subtlety with this point, but the careful reader will find the message. 

So what does Kane (the "white god") do in response to all this? He acts like a god and exacts punishment. He devises a plan and traps the harpies in a hut. He then sets fire to the hut, destroying the beasts. The religious allusions in the conclusion of the story are obvious. But is this what Howard thinks should happen to those who practice oppression of certain races? Howard's struggle with the issue of racism is apparent, which leads me to think that Howard was at least attempting to deal with the issue through his stories. I, for one, think the use of this story to defend Howard's racism is wrong headed. A closer look reveals a much different story, and a potentially transitional Howard in his previous views about racial issues.


David J. West said...

Great post, while I enjoyed the tale I had not seen the nuances in it.

And it is the nuances throughout Howard's work that I believe sets him far above his pastiche type imitators. even for a rollicking great adventure yarn, REH always has something to say.

T Bryan Vick said...

Thanks, David. I agree, REH always has something to say. He was a first rate intellect and writer that's for sure.